The joy of being famous for more than 15 minutes

Allan Fotheringham June 1 1998

The joy of being famous for more than 15 minutes

Allan Fotheringham June 1 1998

The joy of being famous for more than 15 minutes


Allan Fotheringham

It is spring and the defining moment for the merry month of May is quite apparent. It came when PEN Canada, the organization that fights worldwide for writers’ rights and freedom of expression, held a fund-raising evening.

The organizers auctioned off chairs belonging to celebrated—and expired—authors. Robertson Davies’s chair brought in $3,000.

Margaret Laurence’s seat went for $1,100. Other auctions featured a dinner with actor Al Waxman and food critic wife Sara, and a day on the set of David Cronenberg’s new movie.

Most intriguing, however, was another item offered up: a tennis foursome with Bob Rae and his wife, Arlene Perly. This is proof indeed that the major product of the last decade of the century is celebritydom.

Truman Capote, who after his brilliant book In Cold Blood went downhill into celebrityville, was the first one who “became famous for being famous.” Once, on a late-night talk show—Johnny Carson I believe—he was asked who he really was. He replied: “I am an alcoholic, a drug addict, a homosexual—and a genius.”

There was a man who knew his true worth. And now we have the former socialist premier of Ontario renting himself out for tennis foursomes. Everything that goes around comes around.

Bob Rae is the son of a former Canadian ambassador in Geneva. Thus, the old joke that he was born in a log embassy. Author of a searing wit, he used to stand on his head in the middle of dinner parties and was the guy who, as an NDP MP, moved the nonconfidence motion in 1979 on John Crosbie’s budget that killed Joe Clark’s ninemonth government.

He once said that Pierre Trudeau “makes Judas Iscariot look like a team player.” Now, he’s playing celebrity tennis. That’s the way the world works. He’s with a huge Bay Street law firm, travels the world on its behalf and makes a million bucks a year. So it goes.

Celebritydom is droll. His very nice and intelligent wife is “Arlene Perly Rae” because in the post-feminist world you are not supposed to take only your husband’s name—that being equated, apparently, with bondage. So, instead, you take another male’s name—your father. That’s progress.

As some sardonic, feminist-era female said: “The only thing fem inism brought us was Dutch lunch.” I digress.

Back to celebrity. Christie Blatchford is a star columnist for th( The Toronto Sun who bleeds her heart out in every column. She is so honest you feel for her. In another era of journalism, she would have be known as “a sob sister.” On Fleet Street, they cal them “agony aunts.”

She has just been recruited to move to Conrad Black’s allégée new newspaper. Such a celebrity is she, within the Sun manage ment, that she was allowed—while fleeing to a competitor—1( write three farewell columns confess ing that she had given up drinking and ditched her husband and how she would miss her readers.

Meaning that she hoped, of course that her faithful and loving readers would move with her to her allégée newspaper. This is classic celebrity dom, her home newspaper milking out circulation for the news that she was leaving her home newspaper. We can only wish all the same for ourselves. I told her: “Christie, there is only one rule in life. Move on. Nevei look back.”

Oscar Wilde, on his first visit to the United States for a lecture tour, was asked by the immigration officer if he had anything to declare. He replied: “Only my genius.” (This was before, of course, he announced that “Niagara Falls is the second disappointment in a bride’s life.” I digress.) Celebrity is everything. There was § a time when Walter Lippmann, a tow£ ering intellect with an IQ going off the § chart, was the most powerful journalist in the world. He travelled to Europe once a year and his secretary would arrange his itinerary, to meet prime ministers and kings across the continent. Prime ministers and kings, told their schedules would not coincide with Mr. Lippmann’s travels, would reschedule their schedules. His syndicated column, carried around the world, could shake cabinets.

Scotty Reston, bureau chief of The New York Times, one day phoned president John Kennedy. Mr. President, he politely advised, my reporters tell me that people in your office are bullying my men. Mr. President, he suggested, The New York Times was here long before you arrived and it will be here long after you’re gone.

Today, the most powerful journalist in the world is Larry King. He, as he cheerfully admits, has never worked in a newsroom. He was a radio blatherer, then a gossip columnist. Doesn’t matter. There isn’t a politician—a dictator, a movie star, a mother of a highschool murderer—who wouldn’t ooze to get on his show.

If Churchill, as it is dreadful to believe, were alive today he would be on Larry King. Pammy-Wammy Wallin, from downtown Wadena, Sask., is replicating Larry on Newsworld and every other contract anchor type on the CBC is driven wild by her independence and supposed income.

Celebritydom drives the world, as we approach the millennium bug.